Preparing for the Trip
Visa: Japan and the United States have a visa agreement whereby any American who comes to Japan will automatically receive a 90-day tourist visa; no applications or waiting periods are necessary. Other countries have other agreements; check with the closest Japanese embassy or consulate for information.
If you have already been hired from overseas and will receive a working visa before you go, then your new employer will make the visa arrangements for you. The wait can be as long as a few months.
Money: Yep, you gotta spend it to earn it. That is, you should bring at least a few thousand dollars with you when you go to Japan. The reason: you will not get paid for at least a month and a half, and you will have costs that you'll need to pay before it comes.
Here's how it works: you arrive in Japan and spend, say, two weeks searching for a job (it could take longer, but let's use two weeks for now). You get the job, and you start work at the beginning of the pay period, which lasts a month. Paychecks usually come two weeks after the end of the pay period. It is now two full months after you arrived in Japan, and you are only now getting your first paycheck. Get the picture? Even if you have a job already arranged before you come, it will still be up to a month and a half before that first full paycheck comes--so be prepared!
The expenses you will have to meet before that first full paycheck comes will include housing (minimum $400 a month if you live in a gaijin house), food (figure perhaps another $400 a month unless you're really frugal), and transportation (perhaps $100 a month, depends on how far from your work you are. Your school will pay for your transportation--but the money comes with your first paycheck). Expect other costs depending on your situation: utilities, furniture, appliances, clothing, etc.
I would bring a minimum of $2,000, more if you can.
Housing: Unless your employer is going to arrange your housing for you or you have a friend who will put you up, you will want to set up some kind of housing in advance. Gaijin houses are the best place to start off with, as they are cheaper, are set up for foreigners (so you won't have to deal with discrimination), and you can move out if you find better housing.
You can get find listings for gaijin houses in the Tokyo Classifieds, which lists many housing alternatives for under 200,000 yen a month. One shortcoming of the site seems to be that their automatic ad posting cuts off adds beyond a certain length--and many of the phone numbers are at the end of the ads, and get cut off. The Lonely Planet Guide to Japan is said to have a list of gaijin houses that you can call. Kimi Information might have housing information useful to you; they list their phone number as (03) 3986-1604. When you call Japan from the U.S., dial 011 (the international code), 81 (Japan's country code), the city code (if the city code begins with a "0," then omit it when dialing), and then the local phone number. Remember the time difference between where you live and Japan.
What to Bring: you can bring only a limited amount of goodies in your suitcases, although after a year in Japan you'll wish you had a whole cargo container for your own. Well, here are the main things:
Clothing--especially shoes. If you have even a slightly larger-than-average shoe size, you can expect to have trouble finding shoes that will fit you in Japan. Men's shoes over size 9 1/2 (27 cm) and ladies' over 7 1/2 (24.5 cm) are extremely hard to find (sizes U.S. standard). If you are a man and are over 6 feet tall, or a woman over 5 feet 8 inches tall (just approximate guesses), you might be "big and tall" in Japan. Jogging suits are said to be expensive, so you might want to bring one. I have heard that ladies may want to bring a supply of bras, as finding the right size can be difficult. Also, keep in mind that some cosmetics tend to be very expensive in Japan, so if you use it, bring some with you.
To get more clothes over, ship your out-of-season clothes ahead of you by surface mail. Japanese summers are very hot and humid, and winters are cold and dry; many areas in Japan have a good amount of snowfall in the winter (Tokyo gets a few inches now and then, but usually not too much).
And don't forget glasses--prescription glasses can cost a fortune in Japan, so bring at least two pair with you if you need them.
Books--you'll want to send as many books as you can to yourself by surface mail. English books can often be hard to come by in Japan, especially outside of the big cities. You may think shipping them is expensive, but after 6 months in Japan it won't seem like so much. You can order books via the Foreign Buyers Club, or via Amazon.com.
Vitamins and medicine can often be much more expensive and often hard to find in the form you are used to. Aspirin is sold in Japan, for example, but does not come in bottles; rather, they sell it in small boxes containing plastic strips where you punch out the pills. It's best to bring a large price-club bottle with you. Oral contraceptives cannot be bought in Japan; I do not know if it is legal to bring them in for personal use, however. Check with the Japanese embassy / consulate if you need more info on that.
Deodorant can be hard to find, and you may want to bring a few tubes of your favorite brand of toothpaste. If you love CD's, bring your collection from home (you can throw out the jewel cases and keep then in small ziplocs to save space), and buy all the new ones you want to get. In Japan, they can cost $20 a pop.
You might want to bring along some small presents to give to people. Small items around $10 apiece are fine. Something from your hometown or representative of the country is usually proper. Picture books and liquor (usually whiskey) are good for bigger presents, say to homestay families or the boss, for example.
What Kind of Job Can I Get?
Looking for a Job